The Way It Was

From sea­sonal clas­sics to wartime favourites, mu­sic was an in­te­gral part of Christ­mas fam­ily gath­er­ings

Our Canada - - Contents - By Gail M. Mur­ray, Toronto

We’d usu­ally gather at my ma­ter­nal Grandma Van’s, but this year, Aunt Ruth had in­vited us to her brand new home on Blais­dale Road in Scar­bor­ough, a new sub­di­vi­sion at the time. Sod had yet to be laid and mud was ev­ery­where. Be­ing ten, it was an ad­ven­ture walk­ing up the long wooden plank to her front door, con­jur­ing up vi­sions of Cap­tain Hook in Peter Pan.

Aunt Ruth wel­comed us wear­ing a black skirt and flow­ing, red lace ma­ter­nity top. Most of the cousins wore red: scar­let vel­vet, crim­son cor­duroy, or red plaid bow ties. Red was the un­of­fi­cial Christ­mas colour in the ’50s. My aunts chose to wear glossy black taf­feta or translu­cent ny­lon. My mother looked fem­i­nine in her taf­feta dress with a pale blue bodice and a black skirt, ac­ces­sorized with rhine­stone ear­rings. I still have those del­i­cate ear­rings in my jew­elry box. They are a fam­ily heir­loom and a re­minder of her.

As our ex­tended fam­ily had grown, we no longer had a sit­down din­ner. In­stead, we had a scrump­tious buf­fet with turkey, ham, mashed pota­toes, green salad, tomato as­pic, am­brosia salad, and a cheese and pickle tray. For dessert: fruit­cake and short­bread cook­ies, a bevy of tex­tures and flavours.

The best part of our cel­e­bra­tion was the ca­ma­raderie and ex­cite­ment in the air as Un­cle Ralph re­trieved his ac­cor­dion. “Let’s sing ‘Jin­gle Bells’ for the kids,” he’d say.

“Jin­gle Bells” is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Santa’s ar­rival and its tune set our lit­tle cousin Mar­garet off one year. A lively tod­dler, she scram­bled un­der the Christ­mas tree and tore open the first avail­able present— a pair of over­sized un­der­pants slated for Grandma Van! Un­fazed, Mar­garet climbed in, hiked them up to her chin and con­tin­ued search­ing through the gifts. Amid the laugh­ter, Aunt He­len picked up her pre­co­cious young­ster.

As Un­cle Ralph played “Silent Night,” the sis­ters locked arms and swayed back and forth on the sofa.

“Play a Scot­tish ditty for Aunt Jean,” called Aunt Ruth.

We launched into “Bon­nie Banks of Loch Lomond: ”

Aunt Jean danced a lit­tle high­land fling as Mom, with flushed cheeks, gig­gled on the couch while sip­ping her glass of wine. We con­tin­ued to sing more

“Oh, ye’ll take the high road. And I’ll take the low road. And I’ll be in Scot­land afore ye.”

tra­di­tional car­ols such as “Away in a Manger,” “The First Noel” and “Joy to the World,” ac­com­pa­nied by Un­cle Tim on his har­mon­ica.

Next came a rol­lick­ing, toe-tap­ping ren­di­tion of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Co­conuts.” The young cousins bounced about the large liv­ing room as we sang:

“This next one’s for Gord and Ernie,” said Un­cle Ralph. My Grandpa Van (Ernest Al­bert Van Slicker) served in The Great War and “It’s a Long Way to Tip­per­ary” be­came an iconic song, sym­bol­iz­ing how sol­diers longed for home.

Most peo­ple as­so­ciate this tune with Re­mem­brance Day, but it’s on my list of top-ten Christ­mas hits. For the long­est time, I be­lieved that ev­ery­one sang these songs at Christ­mas. Tra­di­tional car­ols were a part of our playlist but singing these poignant World War I and World War II songs, along with fun and rous­ing pub songs, made us unique.

My grand­fa­ther, Ernie, and his brother, Un­cle Gord, had en­listed in 1914 to fight in World War I. My fa­ther and Un­cle Tom were vet­er­ans of the Royal Cana­dian Air Force sta­tioned in Bri­tain dur­ing World War II. Per­haps these melodies were tributes to their courage. They had re­turned from the bat­tle­field, en­rich­ing our lives with colour and mu­sic.

Now, most of my aunts and un­cles are gone, cousins grown and moved away. The mu­sic, how­ever, brings them back.

Aunt Ruth passed away in 1997 and I was hon­oured to give the eu­logy at her memo- rial. The first Christ­mas af­ter her pass­ing, we all gath­ered at her house. Her daugh­ter, Char­lene, had ar­ranged it. She found some old home movies and, as adults, we cher­ished those ear­lier times to­gether. As we gath­ered in the liv­ing room that had hosted so many Christ­mas gath­er­ings be­fore, we con­nected with our younger selves once more in the com­pany of our dear rel­a­tives. Though there was no sound, I could still hear the tunes.

“I’ve got a lovely bunch of co­conuts. There they are all stand­ing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. Give them a twist, a flick of the wrist. That’s what the show­man said.” It’s a long way to Tip­per­ary. It’s a long way to go. It’s a long way to Pic­cadilly. To the sweet­est girl I know.”

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